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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

From the discomfort Zone: The legalities of prostitution

HRD Ministry survey reveals that prostitution is increasing and 60 per cent of girls belong to SC,ST,BC and two-thirds of prostitute families live below the poverty line.

Written by Shombit Sengupta |
December 8, 2013 12:08:36 am

HRD Ministry survey reveals that prostitution is increasing and 60 per cent of girls belong to SC,ST,BC and two-thirds of prostitute families live below the poverty line.

“Respect and save women” is the battle cry I’ve been advocating to fight heinous sex crimes against women. A government-commissioned study,in which 9,500 sex workers were interviewed in 31 states in India,found that over 35 per cent sex workers entered prostitution between ages 12 and 18 — a crime arising from deception,poverty,ignorance and violence inflicted on women.

France is now criminalising buyers of sex. Since last week’s column,the National Assembly (Lower House of Parliament) has voted to make prostitution purchase illegal. The fine was set at ¤1,500,doubled if repeated. Customers have to attend a training course on prostitution and if websites hosted abroad contravene the French law,ISPs must block access to their service. At the same time this law will “decriminalise the prostitute” by annulling a “passive soliciting” offence introduced by a previous conservative administration. This Bill is expected be passed by the French Senate next June.

The profile of sex workers in France has drastically changed. Twenty years ago,20 per cent were foreigners. Today 90 per cent are trafficked into France from Eastern Europe,Africa,South America and China,mostly by prostitution rings. Last year,51 human-trafficking networks were closed and 572 pimps arrested in France. “I don’t want a society in which women have a price,” said Najat Vallaud-Belkacem,France’s Minister for Women’s Rights. She said women working the streets are “bought and sold,swapped,detained,raped and tortured,deceived,trafficked,despoiled. It’s a system that generates $40 billion a year,benefitting mainly those who are trafficking people and drugs”. She hopes the new law will protect these women subjected to violence as it decriminalises soliciting and offers them help and an exit-route.

But,in practice,will this anti-prostitution law be counterproductive,driving the murky business further underground? A sex worker’s advocacy group called STRASS believes it will “force the whores to hide themselves even more”. A group of 60 celebrities and 343 “Salauds” men have denounced it,a philosopher has called it a “declaration of hatred of male sexuality”. Down-to-earth opposition came from Médécins du Monde,an international organisation of doctors which works very effectively in developing countries. In France,they conduct over 18,000 interviews every year to check the health and welfare of sex workers. Their comment is that penalising the prostitutes’ clients in Sweden,the law that France has imitated,forced sex workers “into places that are more out of the way,more exposed to violence and more dangerous”. In this situation,a sex worker is less able to negotiate a fee or have personal safety,and it’s more difficult for medical and social workers to reach them. If victimised,the sex worker is less likely to report to the police.

The French were known for their libertine tolerant approach towards prostitution. Under Napoleon,filles de joie were operating legally and brothels were inspected for health standards. In 1946,the French started outlawing brothels. This time around,according to a CSA poll,79 per cent men,58 per cent women,and most sex workers are against this law,but it’s the feminists who are most divided. As per daily paper Le Monde,four or five distinct currents have appeared. The prohibitionists want to forbid prostitution and consider everyone involved as criminals. The abolitionists like the Minister of Women’s Rights,want to abolish prostitution but not treat the sex workers as criminals. The libertarians argue that the state cannot interfere with a woman’s right to do whatever she wants with her own body. The rule-makers take a similar position but want that some necessary regulation to be there. Le Monde points out contradictions when it comes to other feminist issues. For example,influential intellectual Elisabeth Badinter defends women’s right to sell their sexual services,but opposes Muslim women’s right to wear the veil if they want to. On the other hand,Merteuil of STRASS says her organisation is “pro-sex,pro-porn,pro-whores,and for the freedom to wear the veil”.

If we turn to India,current laws on prostitution are quite ambiguous. It is neither legal nor illegal according to the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act 1986. It is tolerated when sex workers practise it within 200 yards of a public place. However,sex workers are not protected under normal workers laws,not entitled to minimum-wage benefits,compensation for injury,but have the right to rescue and rehabilitation. India’s Ministry of Human Resource and Development survey reveals that prostitution is increasing. Of most of the uneducated rural girls who are forced into it,60 per cent belong to Scheduled Castes,Scheduled Tribes or Backward Classes and two-thirds of prostitute families live below the poverty line. Even children of sex workers become victims of sexual abuse.

But the flesh trade is booming in places you would not connect it to. According to an NDTV report,it’s impossible to find hotel space in Puducherry,the spiritual haven,because of its spellbinding dance bars. At a cost of Rs 250-300,in small rooms holding up to 300 high-spirited men,as the live band builds up to a crescendo,this is what you can witness: “From a small door,women enter wearing shawls around them. On local music called gaana paatu (Tamil version of Bollywood’s item number),the women do a dance and once in a while take off the shawl around them”. Every night,hotels earn up to Rs 1.5 lakh with about three illegal nude dance shows. City NGOs say the women trafficked are from neighbouring states and are held against their will by the highly organised sex trade.

Prostitution in France and India certainly has different and varying hues,nuances and attitudes,but undoubtedly,it is degrading. Except for call girls and escort girls who choose to sell their bodies or live the high life with temporary partners,the majority of sex workers experience the humiliation of being dominated,hunted,harassed,beaten up and perversely violated.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy

consultant to top management. Reach him at

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